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Is your Packaging truly Sustainable?

Sustainable packaging is packaging that, over time, reduces its environmental footprint. The Sustainable Packaging  as defined by the GreenBlue® project is packaging which:

  • is sourced responsibly,
  • is designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle,
  • meets market criteria for performance and cost,
  • is made entirely using renewable energy, and once used,
  • is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations.

In summary: a truly closed loop system for all packaging materials.

Terms like ‘eco-friendly’ ‘green’ and even ‘natural’ has been bandied around quite a bit with no regulated and defined standards to test such claims. ‘Biodegradable’ and ‘Compostable’ are other such terms and most products, especially disposables that claim to be so but are destined for the landfill will not biodegrade or decompost even in our lifetime!

Technically all materials are biodegradable or compostable, but a traditional plastic water bottle will take 450 years to decompose. Something labelled as biodegradable can make its claim though a technicality in the very definition (saying that anything is biodegradable if you wait long enough isn’t a lie after all). This idea makes it difficult for users to know exactly how much they are helping the environment and how ‘green’ the product really is.

Both a biodegradable and compostable material will breakdown and decompose overtime. The issue here is how long the decomposition takes and the by-product that is left behind. This is very much dependent on the composition of the material and the environment in which the decomposition occurs. 

Biodegradation occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and algae convert materials into biomass, carbon dioxide and water.  The main material is non petroleum based in nature and usually made from plant or animal sources. Examples are paper, vegetable scraps and some forms of plastics made from ingredients such as corn starch. Decomposition can take place from as short as a day to as long as a year. Biodegradation can take place in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. By definition, most chemicals are biodegradable because they’re capable of being broken down by the action of living things, such as microorganisms. Current international guidelines stipulates that the entire package should be completely broken down and returned to nature within a “reasonably short period of time”

Composting process is similar to the biodegradation process, except that   the biodegradation process is carried out in a composting facility, where conditions (water, humidity, temperature, and lighting) are optimally tuned to bring about a speedy biodegradation.

In both processes, both biodegradable and compostable materials will ‘disappear’ after some time and the non-toxic by-product become fertilizers known as humus (very dark soil) which can be used to boost the growth potential of another plant. 

Compostability and biodegradability are not based on the feedstock of the product. It’s literally based on the chemical signature that is, the way the plastics are put together. The final product and any inks or labels used, need to be tested and certified using international standards in their own right as being biodegradable. And consumers express greater confidence in conformance with standards that are independently assessed by a third party, i.e. a certification body.

Be mindful of the following issues and environmental challenges:

  • Bioplastics are not always truly compostable. You can have oil-based plastics thatare compostable and plant-based plastics that are not compostable.
  • Different compost facilities use different processes. Some have trouble even with bioplastics. You need to know what your local composting facility does and does not accept. In some facilities, the plastic-coated packaging get separated and no visible plastic is left in the compost, while others are concerned that the nearly invisible tiny fragments of plastic will ultimately ends up contaminating the environment. Screening out the compostable items means extra steps and costs. 
  • A product is either 100% compostable or it is not as most composting facilities cannot separate the biomass from the plastic effectively. . 
  • Most coffee cups and to-go food containers may look/claim to be recyclable and compostable. But they are lined with very thin plastic to hold food and drink. This plastic coating breaks down into tiny plastic fragments which do not disappear. Consequently, they contaminate the finished compost as well as the soil where that compost is used. Worms and insects will ingest them in the soil; and when they get washed out with the rain, they feed into rivers, lakes, and oceans and impact marine ecosystems.
  • PLA (Polylactic acid - PLA) a plastic substitute made from fermented plant starch (usually corn) is quickly becoming a popular alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics. It biodegrades slowly unless subjected to industrial composting. PLA may well break down into its constituent parts (carbon dioxide and water) within three months in a “controlled composting environment,” that is, an industrial composting facility heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and fed a steady diet of digestive microbes
  • Ordinary plastics are passed on as oxo or hydro degradable product. Certain additives or chemicals are added into the compositional makeup of the plastic material to speed up the process of degradation. The degradation is not biological but chemical degradation by oxidation and hydrolysis for oxo and hydro-biodegradable plastics respectively.The main material is still petroleum based plastics and the extent of the degradation process really depends on the amount of additives added. The more additives added, the faster the degradation, the more expensive the product. It can never be as cheap as normal plastics. If the product is as cheap as normal petroleum plastics, then the amount of additives is very little and the product is like normal plastic.

        Several companies are greenwashing their so called oxo or hydro                          degradable product using this unethical method of adding very little                        additives and hoping to gain a premium on their otherwise ordinary                        everyday plastic material. Upon burial of these products, toxic wastes are              produced and these can do further damage to the environment.

  • Products that are photodegradable biodegrade only when exposed to sunlight. A popular example is the plastic “polybag” in which many magazines now arrive protected in the mail. But the likelihood that such items will be exposed to sunlight while buried dozens of feet deep in a landfill is little to none. And if they do photodegrade at all, it is only likely to be into smaller pieces of plastic, contributing to the microplastic population of the oceans.
  • Processing may inhibit biodegradation Biodegradable items may not break down in landfills if the industrial processing they went through prior to their useful days converted them into forms unrecognizable by the microbes and enzymes that facilitate biodegradation. A typical example is petroleum, which biodegrades easily and quickly in its original form: crude oil. But when petroleum is processed into plastic, it is no longer biodegradable, and as such can clog up landfills indefinitely.
  • Biodegradable/greener plastic water bottles and shopping bags are in fact extremely durable and add to the plastic debris in the ocean, instead of being a solution to the ubiquitous problem of litter in the oceans.
  •  A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50C and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, and hence not exposed to UV and break down.

  • To confuse matters further, many bioplastics are made to look like real plastics and end up in the recycling bin where they cause problems for the plastic recycling process.

    What can you do as customers to judge the viability of a biodegradable product claim:

    • Look for third party certifications for accurate information
    • Read the packaging label carefully
    • Choose packaging made from natural products 
    • Do research online to further determine the biodegradability of the packaging in terms of its composition and the time it takes to break down.
Element packaging offers a full range of fully accredited products that are home compostable, compostable and biodegradable and made from bagasse, cornstarch, paper, card, PLA, bamboo fiber and wood.
  • The home compostable range including coffee cups and printed food boxes has a unique plant starch lining that can degrade in 30 degrees celcius, thus making it home compostable and does not need to go into an industrial composting facility , lining.
  • The biodegradable range including plates and bowls are made are made from cornstarch.
  • The compostable range made from bagasse include coffee cups and lunch boxes.
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